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DIY Shibori: Learn From the Experts

Mar 12, 2015

by Valerie Rains handmade and vintage goods

Whether you’re an experienced crafter looking for a fresh outlet or a novice hoping to find the best avenue to channel your creative urges, there’s no time like the present to pick up a new craft. In the Learn From the Experts series, we poll some of the most skilled and inspiring sellers on Etsy for their top beginner tips. 

A traditional method of resist dyeing practiced in Japan for more than a thousand years (and the esteemed ancestor to the beloved tie-dyed t-shirts many of us made in middle school), shibori dyeing is riding a new wave of popularity. Thanks to the wide range of styles and approaches, it’s a great craft for almost anyone to pick up. “Shibori is suited to any personality type — it really depends on what you want to get out of it,” says Vic Pemberton of Melbourne-based shop Bind And Fold.

“If you’re a perfectionist, then traditional shibori is your game, and you’ll love trying to master perfectly crisp straight lines in all your itajime pieces,” Vic says. “If you like to go with the flow and experiment and enjoy a ‘wabi sabi’ take on life, then you’ll love the happy accidents that occur when you combine a natural and somewhat unpredictable dye like indigo with shibori.”

What’s more, many of the materials used in shibori are things you probably already have around the house — wooden blocks, rubber bands, jar lids, old tights — and even mistakes still tend to yield beautiful results. “The imperfections are part of the process; they add character and individuality to each piece,” says textile artist and instructor Gretchie Wagner. Are you ready to get started? Read on for tips from our team of Etsy experts on selecting your materials, choosing a first project, and taking your newfound skills to the next level.

Picking a Project

“A good beginner project is to dye a pair of white cushion covers — it’s quick to complete and you’ll have something beautiful and useful at the end,” says U.K.-based seller Rebecca Desnos. “Try folding each cushion cover with small pleats until you have a long sausage of fabric, then tie elastic bands along the length and dip it into a dye bath.” Or just browse Pinterest: ideas for DIY shibori projects are plentiful.


And for a detailed step-by-step tutorial, check out Etsy’s shibori-dyed table runner DIY, shown above. 

Choosing Your Materials

Go for natural fabrics. Whether you want to dye old clothing or linens you already own or purchase new materials for your projects, pick natural fabrics, like cotton, linen, silk, or wool, Vic says, focusing on solid, light-colored swatches to start. They’ll take the dye better than synthetics or blends. “I also recommend working with silk scarves: not only are they fairly inexpensive and come in an assortment of sizes, but the shibori results are stunning on the lustrous material, and you can wear the pieces right away,” Gretchie says.

Consider a natural dye. While synthetic options abound, our experts overwhelmingly endorsed natural dyes for their eco-friendliness and the individuality and character that result from their inherent unpredictability. Gretchie favors pre-reduced indigo kits for beginners: “Most natural dyestuffs require a heat source and long soaks in the bath to achieve dark and saturated color, but indigo is kept at room temperature and the depth of shade is created with multiple dips into the vat, instead,” she says. “The pre-reduced indigo takes all the hassle out of working with indigo and simplifies it to measuring out the different ingredients and adding them to your vat.”

Gather materials to make patterns. In shibori, designs are produced by folding, clamping, squeezing, and binding fabric, sometimes with small objects incorporated for even more pattern potential. “Strong thread (or dental floss), clamps from the hardware store, beads, coins, un-popped popcorn, marbles, and plastic lids are just some of the easy-to-find items that can be used to create interesting shibori designs,” says Laura Bellel of Milkweed Quilts, who has been working with the craft for over a decade. Aside from a large plastic tub to do the dyeing in — and a good pair of rubber gloves to protect your hands — the only other thing you need is inspiration. “I recommend buying a shibori book that has lots of pictures (I have quite a few myself!),” Gretchie says. “They come in handy when you’re feeling stuck on what types of designs you’d like to create — and will also help you understand what techniques and props yield certain results.”

Rookie Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

Don’t rush. From preparing the fabric and the dye to soaking, rinsing, and unfolding the finished product, this is a process that takes time. “Instead of trying to do everything in one day — bind the fabric, soak the fabric, dye the fabric, wash the fabric, dry the fabric, and clean up the giant mess you made — I try to break up my tasks and work slow and steady throughout the week,” Gretchie says. “The most important part about shibori is the binding of your material. If you rush this part of the process, further down the line you’ll regret the results.” That’s not the only part you don’t want to hurry through. Untying or unfolding the shibori fabric too soon can result in patterns with less contrast and may cause a crisp design to blur, Laura says; the same goes for not rinsing the dye thoroughly (until the water runs clear) while the fabric is still bound.

Anticipate a mess. “The first few times you work with the dye it will be unavoidably messy, so cut out the frustration of dripping dye on your hardwood floors or spilling something in your kitchen,” Gretchie says. “Indigo will get on anything and everything, so be careful about where you’re working. In fact, just work outside if the weather is nice. I love laying my dyed pieces all over the backyard as I work. Plus, it cuts back on cleaning time after you’ve spent a whole day stooped over your vat.”

Wear good gloves. “Don’t ever use gloves that have a hole in them unless you want to dye your hands and fingernails blue!” Gretchie says.

Extra Credit

“I have a handful of books about natural dyeing, shibori, and specifically indigo dyeing, but the best inspiration and education for me comes in the visual form. I follow so many other inspiring natural dyers through Instagram and blogs (@shibori_textiles, @salt_and_still, and @honestalchemyco are a few of my favorites); some are shibori artists like me and others are growing their own indigo and dyeing yardage for large-scale projects. I am now so familiar with the different techniques that I can look at pictures of their final pieces and trace backwards how they achieved those results,” says Gretchie.

“The natural world is my constant teacher and inspiration for color and design in shibori. The curl of a morning glory tendril, a sliver of moon, layers of clouds or ripening seedpods are marvelous and free guides. Attention is the only price to pay for this education,” Laura says.


Valerie Rains is an editor at Etsy.


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